Pioneer of abstract art and eminent aesthetic theorist, Wassily Kandinsky (b. 1866, Moscow; d. 1944, Neuilly-sur-Seine, France) broke new ground in painting in the first decades of the twentieth century. His seminal treatise On the Spiritual in Art, published in Munich in 1911, lays out his program for developing an art independent of one’s observations of the external world. Kandinsky strove to use abstraction to give the painting the freedom from nature that he admired in music. His discovery of a new non-objective subject matter occupied him throughout his life. Nevertheless, Kandinsky’s artistic career had been launched three decades before developing this revolutionary theory. His early works correspond to the movement of expressionism and were mostly produced in Munich after he formed associations with the city’s leading avant-garde groups, such as Der Blaue Reiter, in 1896.
Composed of thickly worked layers of green, white, and earthy pigments, and strokes of blue, “Kochel – Waterfall I” is an important example of Wassily Kandinsky’s early landscapes. Kandinsky was greatly inspired by the dramatic terrain surrounding Kochel, a Bavarian town south of Munich set near a large lake at the foot of the Alps, and frequently painted the nature of the area. In this painting, the Lainbach waterfall is depicted, and he would repeat it in the summer of 1902 when he took his class of students to Kochel in his capacity as a teacher at the Phalanx school. In that second version, his utilization of strong colors would work to suggest pure shape and form, hovering close to the border of abstraction.
While the present painting may seem far removed from the later abstract works of the artist, Kandinsky saw his progression as rather logical. He didn’t wish to give the impression that his art constitutes a radical break with tradition, rather, he defended the idea that all that is new in art must grow out of what went before. Kandinsky later recalled the importance of these early landscape studies in the development of his creative principles, noting that this earliest phase of his career was dominated by two overriding themes: ‘1. Love of nature. 2. Indefinite stirrings of the urge to create. This love of nature consisted principally of pure joy in enthusiasm for the element of color. I was often so strongly possessed by a strongly sounding, perfumed patch of blue in the shadow of a bush that I would paint a whole landscape merely to fix this patch… It was out of these exercises that my later ability developed, as well as my way of painting sounding landscapes’.